PARAMUS – When Bergen County Democratic Committee (BCDO) Chairman Lou Stellato took charge of a battered, power and money drained party this year, he knew there was only one way he could make a positive impact.
“Win,” Stellato told PolitickerNJ.com Thursday. “I’m an enigma because I haven’t gone through an election yet.”
He’s trying to build in a crisis time. Bergen sources say this is the worst time in years to be in charge of bringing in cash.
So he won’t have the dollars former Party Chairman Joe Ferriero had when multi-millionaire Jon Corzine donated heavily a decade ago – not by a long shot with $86,542 raised by the BCDO this year and all of it spent and the GOP outmuscling him early – but the new chairman said he has two sufficient targets: an opposition governor who won’t tax the rich in economically tough times, and a divided Republican Party, both nationally and countywide.
“It’s not my first rodeo,” he said. “I can do a lot more with a lot less. We’ll be very competitive in November.”
He’s mostly on defense this year, aiming to hold two freeholder seats and help state Sen. Robert Gordon of Paramus maintain power in the 38th District. This week, he hosted a fundraising breakfast that featured former Governor (and state Senator) Richard Codey and netted “between $5,000 and $10,000.”
“The 38th District is smack dab in the middle of the middle class and Bob Gordon understands the obligation of government to help,” Stellato said of the senator manning Stellato’s most competitive legislative district this year.
He said he hasn’t seen a lot of activity from Gordon’s challenger, Bergen County Freeholder Director John Driscoll.
“I was in elected office for 25 years and I have visceral disdain for politicians who think they can start after Labor Day,” said Stellato, who criticized the Republican freeholder board for being often unable to muster five majority votes.
In response, “They’re self serving statements,” said Bob Yudin, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization. “I understand. They’re coming from a chairman who’s out of office now, who won’t have one elected official in office if we sweep this November.
“This is the third chairman I’ve faced in three years,” added Yudin, whose party organization raised $137,175 this year and has $58,289 cash on hand.
“We’ve taken control of just about everything and at the cusp of taking control of everything that’s left. In only six months, Republicans have shown that we mean what we say. This year we promised we would reduce taxes and for first time in ten years the budget is less than last year. My counterpart is pontificating, disparaging the Republican freeholders. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that during their time not once was there a dissenting vote. They were puppets for the chairman. I don’t operate that way. My elected officials vote their conscience. He doesn’t get it. What he said shows why we don’t want Democrats coming back: a party boss telling Democrats how to vote.”
While his own fundraising continues to be anemic compared to the Ferriero era, Stellato admits his own party has a bigger branding problem that goes beyond Bergen.
“The Tea Party did a great job and we went about healthcare the wrong way,” said the chairman, son of a UAW worker. “When Bin Laden was killed they were going to run Obama for pope. I knew that would have a shelf life of 72 hours. If Obama wants to be a diplomat that’s fine, but he has to be getting the message out there of core values. It is the moral obligation of government to take care of the sick, needy and the handicapped.
“I’m an opponent of the idea that government is too big. Republicans say that and then the minute their nose starts to run they want government to wipe it for them.
“We’re not getting the message out there, and it pains me,” added Stellato, whose political idol remains 1968 Democratic Presidential nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey, his professor at the University of Minnesota.
Notwithstanding his own party’s obstacles, he said he still believes the Republicans will overreach in 2012, as he anticipates a Tea Party GOP Primary victor opposing U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) – someone like state Sen. Mike Doherty (R-23), who continues to build support for a challenge from the right.
“Bill Bradley is one of the greatest senators to serve and he never would have gotten there if it wasn’t for Jeffrey Bell,” said Stellato, referring to the 1978 general election in which former New York Knick Bradley defeated conservative Republican Bell, who had shocked New Jersey earlier that year when he beat popular incumbent U.S. Sen. Clifford Case in the Republican Primary.
The former long-serving mayor of Lyndhurst and owner of his own family funeral parlor, Stellato prefers an executive role. Of course, that didn’t mean he would rule out senator, or later as it turned out, the Assembly.
But in 1997, then-BCDO Chairman Jerry Calabrese tapped Gary Furnari to serve as the 36th Legislative District senator. When Furnari took a judgeship in 2001, succeeding Bergen Democratic Party Chairman Joe Ferriero chose Wood-Ridge Mayor Paul Sarlo instead of Stellato.
Ferriero offered him an Assembly seat, which Stellato didn’t want. He didn’t care to run for re-election every two years and he didn’t want tripod placement that didn’t put him at the top of the pyramid.
He turned Ferriero down.
Since that time, Stellato’s name surfaced as a possible challenger to Sarlo but he didn’t make a move in 2007 and this time took on the chairmanship after talks with the senator and Stellato’s decision to back Kevin Ryan for the Assembly instead of running himself for the job.
Then he became chairman, a job with little power projection left compared to the Ferriero era, unless Stellato can raise some money and rack some wins.